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Authorities have arrested Holden Matthews in connection with fires in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, that destroyed three predominantly black churches. Ashley White, Democrat staff writer

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LAFAYETTE, La. - The man suspected of setting fire to three churches in St. Landry Parish has been indicted on federal hate crime charges, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a St. Landry Parish Sheriff's deputy, was charged with three counts of using fire to commit a felony and three counts of intentional damage to religious property, which are hate crimes under the Church Arson Prevention Act.

The federal grand jury charges, which were filed Thursday in the Western District of Louisiana and unsealed nearly a week later, state Matthews intentionally set the fires because of the "religious character of that property."

Matthews pleaded not guilty to the charges Wednesday morning, according to court documents.  

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“Attacks against an individual or group because of their religious beliefs will not be tolerated in the Western District of Louisiana,” U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph said in a statement. “Churches are vital places of worship and fellowship for our citizens and bind us together as a community. Our freedom to safely congregate in these churches and exercise our religious beliefs must be jealously guarded. Today we are one step closer to justice for the parishioners of these churches and the St. Landry Parish communities affected by these acts.”

If convicted, Matthews could face a maximum of 20 years per count of intentional damage to religious property. He also faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years for the first count of using fire to commit a felony and 20 years for the subsequent counts, which would run consecutively. In addition, he faces up to three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and restitution. 

Matthews also faces three charges of state hate crimes, two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building. He pleaded not guilty to those charges on April 15. 

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Authorities allege Matthews set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church, which is in Port Barre, on March 26; Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2; and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on Highway 182 south of Opelousas on April 4. 

An arrest affidavit showed investigators tied him to the crimes through surveillance video that showed a truck registered to his father at the fires, the purchase of a gas can and cell phone tower data. Authorities also are investigating Matthews' involvement in the music genre of black metal, whose followers have been tied to church fires and extreme acts in other parts of the country. 

In the wake of the fires, more than $2.1 million was raised for the three churches to rebuild. The churches' leaders were visited by Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins and other prominent political figures who wanted to show their support for the religious institutions. 

Follow Ashley White on Twitter @AshleyyDi

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